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02.17.10

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From Kindling to Kindle

Will the future of reading affect the future of writing?

By Daedalus Howell

James Joyce, it is said, became so disgruntled while drafting his first novel that he threw it on the fire. His girlfriend rescued the work-in-progress from the flames, and the subsequent rewrite became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Such acts of literary self-immolation and redemption could only occur in our once-analog world, when the permanence of erasure moved only as fast as fire. These days, the irreversible deletion of one's work is a mere keystroke away.

That said, it seems would-be authors are more apt to hit the "publish" key on their blogs than the "delete" key on their magnum opus. Future literary historians will decide whether this has been a positive trend for the world of letters. Of the 100 million–plus blogs in existence, it's unclear how many purport to be literature, let alone how many actually are. Nevertheless, entire industries have arisen to support the notion one's blog could be a book, turning aspirants into authors with a click and credit card—at least for now.

Print-on-demand services like San Francisco–based Blurb will print the next Joyce a "Blog Book" for a percentage of that book's sale to the author or his readers, in as many or as few copies as desired. Blurb has even automated the process with a program that "slurps" a blog's content from its online habitué and excretes it in the shape of a book when ordered online. Likewise, online retail juggernaut Amazon provides a similar service, CreateSpace, an on-demand clearinghouse for everything DIY, from books to DVDs. It is a micro-mogul's mecca for the manufacture of media.

Now print-on-demand might prove to be a transitional technology the same way DVDs are giving way to digital downloads. Amazon claims 35 percent of its book sales are downloads for its Kindle "wireless reading device." In March, cult brand Apple will overshoot the electronic book fray with the iPad, which aggregates print, video and music enjoyment into a single, sexy device.

Be assured, publishers and independent authors alike are readying their wares for Apple's latest game-changer, which is an overgrown iPhone sans telephony. But who wants to take a call while in the thrall of a warm, glowing piece of technology anyway? It's like a vibrator for the mind, and a throng of independent content producers hopes to get you off.

In the olden days of digital reading, circa 2000, premium content was scarce. Beyond being deskbound, the only texts available seemed to be classics poached from the public domain, Joyce included. Occasional experiments in electronic-book marketing came and went, with business ebooks and white papers seeming most prevalent. The transformation of print-to-pixel was a trickle with publishers wary or unsure of the medium, though pixel-to-print releases were garnering wider appeal and stoking dreams of digital discovery for thousands of would-be authors (blog-borne Julie/Julia is a popular example). Publisher HarperCollins even created Authonomy, an online authors community from which it occasionally cherry-picks and publishes material vetted by the crowd.

Now, however, it seems a new type of author is poised to emerge, one tailored to the new medium literally at hand, whose work will bypass traditional publishers and appear in the iTunes store, forsaking the bookshelf entirely. Pictures in printed books must have once been a novelty—moving pictures embedded in the text of your iPad is an inevitability, not to mention audio, three-dimensional maps, animated sidebars and other electronic illuminations. How will this amplify or diminish storytelling as we know it? A fear is that mutant transmedia hybrids might obviate established forms or at least leave them marginalized in the market in which a bestseller and killer app are one and the same.

What seems most uncertain is whether how we read will affect how we write. This will have to be determined in the field, for not even a visionary such as Joyce could have anticipated someone cuddling up with his words "In the silence their dark fire kindled the dusk into a tawny glow" from the glow of a tawny Kindle.

Daedalus Howell creates blogs and video at DHowell.com.


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